by Claire Nixon
In part 1 of this series, we talked with Patricia Wu about her diagnosis of metastatic breast cancer at the age of 32. Patricia lives in Long Beach, California.
After recovering from an initial aggressive treatment regimen, she went on an ice-climbing trip with First Descents, an organization that offers outdoor adventure trips to people living with a cancer diagnosis. She shared that the first thing she will keep in her heart from the trip is her definition of fearlessness: Moving forward in the face of fear.
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Patricia Wu: The second thing, and it came up in conversations on the trip, is that when you look in the mirror and you just don’t recognize yourself. You just don’t. There’s the physical changes with the hair or the puffiness from chemo. There’s all of that, but it is also on a much deeper level. I think it’s the same experience as when you are helping a friend or a loved one through a moment of crisis and you look in their eyes and you see pain, you see suffering, you see things that were not there a day ago. It’s the same experience except it’s happening when I’m looking in a mirror.
Claire Nixon: Is that something you’re still sort of wrestling with, or have you found yourself in a new place?
PW: It’s not as simple as getting to a new place, because I will forever live in a world that I did not choose to be in and would choose to get out of in most any way possible. Because this isn’t a choice. You could have a rough time with sleepless nights with a baby or be overworked at a job, but there was a choice. There’s no choice involved in cancer; it just happens. I think I’ve gotten used to the fact that I don’t always know and I don’t always like the person I see in the mirror.
It was realizing that I was never going to get back to the place I was in before cancer. People used to ask me, “Well, before cancer, what would you have thought of this?” And I used to try to continue my thinking in this parallel cancer-free universe that no longer existed. “If you didn’t have cancer, would you have wanted children?” That’s one I get all the time.
CN: How do you respond?
PW: I think in the beginning I responded with, “Yeah, if I didn’t have cancer I would have wanted to have kids,” and I respond now by saying, “I don’t think it matters, because you can’t go back to a world where I don’t have cancer.”
It’s tempting for other people and it’s tempting for me to imagine this world where I don’t have cancer and what would be possible and what my life would be like. I can’t say I found a “new normal;” that language doesn’t resonate for me. What I can say is that I realize I have to let go of the past. I have to take steps forward and I have to get to know the person who is looking at me in the mirror. And people describe that woman as inspiring and strong. I don’t know if I agree with all of the adjectives, but I need to get to know that person in the mirror. And I need to stop trying to figure out if that person is better or worse, because once again, it doesn’t matter. All that matters is this is who I am and that’s the bottom line.
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On her Facebook page, Patricia wrote, “I missed the woman who used to laugh more and cry less. And then I let her go. It was never really a choice; I was temporarily fooled into thinking it was. Once I let her go, I stood tall at the crossroads of fearlessness and vulnerability and there I found a desire to thrive and live my days to their fullest.”
PW: The third thing I got out of [the First Descents experience] was a network of people living with different stages of cancer. There were four of us in our group who have one form or another of incurable, life-threatening cancer. It was powerful to meet other people who were struggling with death, who thought about death every day and not in this gloom and doom sort of way, but with a willingness to face a cancer diagnosis and say, “Well, this is part of my reality that I have to confront death in a much more intense way than others my age.” Coming out of that with other people sharing my experiences was amazing. Two members of our group are getting married this fall; I am so happy they found each other. Unfortunately we all live in different states, so the friendship and support lives mostly on Facebook and text.
CN: And reflecting on what you said earlier -- the idea of not having a choice. Is there a way to find choices you can make within those limitations?
PW: I think the choices that I make are how I want to live every day and how I want to be remembered. Those are the same choices that I had before cancer, but it’s in a different frame and a different world now.
CN: How do you want to live every day?
PW: I want to live every day with purpose. I want to leave things a little better than I found them. And for me, that is through my work in education and my work as an advocate. It all boils down to the same thing. Can I leave things just a little better than I found them? I don’t believe I’m going to revolutionize or change the world. It’s not even really something that motivates me; I’m not a grandiose kind of person, but I hope to leave things a little better than I found them. That’s how I choose to live each day. For me, a big part of that is continuing to work because I have direct access to helping people through my job.
CN: And the second part of that -- how you want to be remembered -- do you have feelings or thoughts about that?
PW: I believe strongly that people don’t remember what you do; they remember how you made them feel. So I hope that in my interactions with people in the day to day, in this conversation with you, and at every level, that people remember someone who is honest and direct because that’s who I am, but also somebody who is compassionate and kind and can show empathy.
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Patricia turns 36 this July. She works as a charter school administrator overseeing wellness and school culture programs for Green Dot Public Schools in Los Angeles, CA. She also serves as a patient advocate with the Susan Love Research Foundation.